The Star Destroyer Potjomkin (2005)

For the second time in the life of this blog, it is time for Short Film Month. The reason why I want to devote an entire month’s output only to short film is that I normally only write about feature-length films, or those that are slightly shorter, and yet there is so much short film on the Internet Archive that deserves to be highlighted. This time, I will begin with the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

Brick film is a genre which I must admit I know very little about. Yet, on a blog about the Internet Archive it deserves to be mentioned, because there is an entire collection of hundreds of these films. The basic idea is that you use Lego bricks for your sets, props and characters. Then you animate the film, one frame at a time. Most are made by dedicated amateurs, and most are short, typically from just a minute or two up to a quarter of an hour. The occasional exception, such as The Han Solo Affair, is completely professionally made, and more in the nature of a Lego commercial.

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is almost exactly an hour shorter than the version of Battleship Potemkin that I reviewed last week. The title, along with the tag-line “Star Wars meets Eisenstein meets Lego”, more or less says it all. The plot is condensed, but more or less intact. The film often balances on a fine edge between parody and homage.

If, like me, you think that The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is a good film and you want more of same, be aware that not all brick films are as good as this one. There are some shining examples of how this medium can be used to make good film, and then there are some really bad pieces, and most fall somewhere in between. I suggest you browse the above-mentioned collection and look carefully at the reviews. They will usually give you a pretty good idea of what you will experience, even though Internet Archive reviews in general tend to be a bit overrating.

This film is best enjoyed after you have already seen the original Battleship Potemkin, and the sooner after the better. The film’s greatest strength is its many elegant references to the original, especially in angles and image composition.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin
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Year: 2005
Running time: 11 min
Director: Karsten Köhler
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Quicktime (165 M)

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Samsara (2001)

The Internet Archive is a strange site, but also rewarding. The structure leaves much to be desired, but the positive side is that in order to find what you are looking for, you are likely to stumble upon other interesting films in the process. Like when I was looking for the film Samsara (2011), which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

After some little confusion, it dawned upon me that there are in fact two films with the same title at the Archvie, and the other Samsara also seemed interesting. It is hard to imagine two films that are more different; yet both embody the Sanskrit word ‘Samsara’, which in Buddhism refers to the constant cycle of life – birth, death, rebirth – and yet both evoke the same feelings of wonder and awe.

Buddhist monks in Pan Nalin's Samsara (2001)

Samsara is about the Buddhist monk Tashi. He is young, yet he has been in the monastery for most of his life. He is very devoted, but after meeting the young woman Pema, he suddenly starts to have feelings of doubt. Is this all there is to life? What about love? Family? He decides to leave the monastery to seek Pema and try to find out.

Samsara is a film about people trying to cope with everyday life, in a part of India where most things are what they have been for centuries. People weave their clothes and farm their fields in the same way as their grandfathers and grandmothers did. But modern life is drawing closer, along with all its blessings and curses.

This is a very beautiful film, filled with the magnificent nature of countryside India. But even though nature is important and breathtaking, focus is always on the humans living in it; on their strenghts and their faults. This is a very warm and loving film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have plenty of time and nothing to disturb you for a few hours. Samsara is a film that allows, and requires, room for contemplation.

Shawn Ku and Christy Chung in Pan Nalin's Samsara (2001)

Samsara
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Year: 2001
Running time: 2 h 19 min
Directors: Pan Nalin
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (608×288)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)

The Corporation (2003)

Pollution. Underpaid workers. Control of the media. Contempt of governments and courts. Patenting of genetic information. Those are only a few of the problems caused by today’s global corporations, corporations that claim to have the same rights (but not always the same responsibilities) as living persons.

This is what The Corporation is about, a Canadian documentary trying to convey the message that corporations have become far too powerful to actually do good for society. It is an extremely well produced documentary. It is clear that it was made by professionals, and also that it must have had a high budget for that kind of film. Many celebrities critical of corporations appear, including Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, each with his/her own angle on the subject matter.

"Harm to human beings: Toxic waste" from The Corporation (2003)

Though this is a relevant film with an important message, it is most interesting to me personally for two reasons. One is that it puts the corporation into a historical perspective. In fact, I would have liked to see an entire film devoted to that subject alone, as it is only briefly sketched here. The other reason is that it focuses on the corporations as entities and tries to tell us why those entities become a menace to society, even though the people in them may be good and well-meaning.

The story is told from a very American perspective, and even though it was produced in Canada, focus is very much on the US. We Europeans like to think that we do not have the same kinds of problems with commercialization that the US does, but it is important to remember (as the film reminds us several times) that these are global corporations. Therefore, whatever problems these corporations cause in the US, or in their Asian sweatshops, those become problems in Europe, too. Or in Africa. Or wherever you happen to be.

If there is a problem with The Corporation, it is mainly that the film tries to cover too much ground. There are so many threads going in all kinds of directions that it is impossible to pull it all together into closure. Instead the film ends in what is perhaps a little bit cliché, as we are fed the message that yes, we can do it! If we work together, we can do it! And maybe that is just not true? Only time will tell.

This film is best enjoyed when seen together with the documentaries Orwell Rolls in His Grave and Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room from around the same time. These three films tackle different aspects of what is basically the same cluster of problems. When seen together they help to provide a larger picture, and even though they cannot subscribe to the absolute truth, they show that many people see the same kinds of things from different perspectives.

"Bow your heads. The corporation will now lead us in prayer." Anti-corporate demonstration in The Corporation (2003)

The Corporation
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Year: 2003
Running time: 2 h 26 min
Directors: Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×368)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M + 699 M – 2 parts)

Reign of the Fallen (2005)

“Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away … a jedi master had two young and ambitious pupils.” That could have been the beginning of the Star Wars fan film Reign of the Fallen, except that this film has a bit more class and style than that.

In a world where too much is governed by greed and financial power, it is in equal parts fascinating and invigorating that a concept such as fan film is allowed to thrive, or at least to live. Fan film is like fan fiction, only on the screen. But while fan fiction requires nothing but a devoted mind and a computer (or pen and paper, for that matter), a fan film by necessity needs at least a skeleton staff, a lot of time for pre-production, shooting and editing, and usually also some fairly expensive equipment. In theory, of course, a fan film needs be no more sophisticated than Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge (1936), but a lot more is required if it wants to be taken seriously.

The Star Wars fan film Reign of the Fallen (2005)

Even the best fan films are often amateurish in many ways. The actors are usually not very good, and special effects can sometimes look comically bad. Of course, this is part of the charm: The film makers actually manage to complete a film of considerable length in spite of their limitations, and the results can be endearing; even enjoyable.

Reign of the Fallen is no exception in this regard. However, unlike many other fan films, it does not suffer from its amateurish aspects to any greater extent, because it places very little emphasis on acting and special effects anyway. Here, the main focuses are the script and the photo. And both are of high quality, better than some professional films. In fact, the film is extremely beautiful at times. Also, the music is excellent.

Reign of the Fallen is set on the distant planet Prias. The Sith wish to increase their influence, but there is a way to stop them, if only one of the Jedi master’s pupils can find an ancient artefact and use it against the Sith. Such is the basic plot, but there is a lot more depth to it once the story is set in motion.

This film is best enjoyed by true geeks. Even in spite of its qualities, it is doubtful if it holds enough to be interesting in itself, without the scope of the entire Star Wars phenomenon to augment it. If you are a Star Wars geek (you know you are), watch it on May the fourth, Star Wars Day.

Sith warriors in Reign of the Fallen (2005)

Reign of the Fallen
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Year: 2005
Running time: 55 min
Director: David McLeavy
Stars: Jason Updike, Carlos Acuña
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (640×270)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Quicktime (271 M)

Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

When I was a young man in the 80s and 90s, I used to think that I was living in a good world. That humanity, generally speaking, was going in the right direction and that we had a bright future ahead of us. Well, time has moved on, and so has my mind. Nowadays, I tend to be increasingly cynical about the future of mankind. Perhaps that is why I am writing a blog about cinema instead of anything important. A form of denial. Do something fun, and anxiety may perhaps be kept at a distance for a few hours more.

But even in the world of film, reality creeps up every once in a while, even though it is reality filtered through the minds and performances of the filmmakers. A good example of this is Robert Kane Pappas’ documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave. Even though it is more than ten years old, it still has some interesting things to say about where today’s media are headed.

George W. Bush - one of the targets of the documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

It is important, when watching a film like this, to realize that it is not a balanced account of the state of things. Quite to the contrary, every person in the film who is allowed to speak freely is someone who shares Pappas’ point of view. That is not to say that it lacks value, nor that there is no truth in it. As a matter of fact, I find it absolutely terrifying to ponder the kind of world we are living in if only half of the accusations are true, and especially given developments such as the NSA surveillance, that were not known when the film was made.

Yes, the film is relevant, in spite of its age, and even though it has in some ways aged considedrably. There is much reporting about George W. Bush, for example, who was president at the time. Today, we tend to think that Bush was some kind of cruel American joke on humanity, not deserving to be taken seriously, but back then Bush was actually real and his statements and actions carried meaning.

The strength of this documentary, and the reason why it remains relevant, is the way in which it intertwines interviews and other typical documentary material with quotes from George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four. As I have already noted in my review of the 1954 film Nineteen Eighty-Four, the US is not Oceania, and there is no reason to believe that it will turn into Orwell’s dystopia. But the allegories in the book and film are perhaps even more relevant today than they were when the book was written.

This film is best enjoyed when you are ready to step out of your bubble for a moment and look at some not so very nice aspects of reality.

They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality ... and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. Quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, from the documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave (2003)

Orwell Rolls in His Grave
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Year: 2003
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Robert Kane Pappas
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Low (480×320)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

On the Internet Archive, there are quite a good number of well-made documentaries from the past ten-or-so years. One of them is Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room. As the title implies, it is about the rise and fall of the energy corporation Enron.

The Enron offices in Houston, Texas, from Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

The Enron scandal, unravelled shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, is considered to be one of the worst cases of corporate fraud ever committed. As a result of the scandal, tens of thousands of employees and private shareholders lost huge savings, in many cases resulting in personal disaster.

The documentary points out three major perpetrators to Enron’s criminal and unethical actions: The founder and CEO Ken Lay, President Jeff Skilling, and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow.

The narrative structure of Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room is fairly straight-forward by today’s standards. A narrator guides us past many interviews, TV news clippings and senate hearings, as well as various audio and video recordings for internal Enron use. There are also interior and exterior shots of the main offices, and of course the mandatory flashbacks to education and early careers of the central persons.

The whole mix is presented in a believable and appealing way. The conclusions, including some interesting speculation on what caused so much callousness and greed, seem to hold up when I double-check some other Internet sources on the subject.

This film is best enjoyed if you have been pondering questions of good versus evil in mankind and want some more food for thought.

Enron's Jeff Skilling from Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room
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Year: 2005
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Alex Gibney
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (720×416)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Most Interet Archive films have found their way there because someone was careless about renewing copyright at some point. Or because they are very, very old.

But there are also films that are there because the copyright holders made a deliberate choice to distribute them that way, being more interested in giving the film as wide a distribution as possible than in making money from it, or because they make money in ways other than traditional distribution channels.

These films are sometimes made by amateurs (that holds true especially for many short films, often of mediocre quality, but occasionally a diamond in the rough), but a number are completely professionally produced. One of these is the animated feature Sita Sings the Blues.

Sita and Rama in Ramayana section of Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues tells the autobiographical story of how the animator Nina lost her boyfriend, home and cat, all at once, and parallels that storyline with the old Indian mythological Ramayana epic about the goddess Sita and her husband Rama.

This film is not only very good, it is also innovative on several levels. Most immediately noticeable is the mixing of at least five distinctly different animation styles, each setting the mood for a certain part or aspect of the story. Underlying the animation is also the interesting fact that it is largely animated in Adobe Flash.

In some ways, the storytelling of Sita Sings the Blues is very similar to that of Three Ages, which I wrote about last week. But where the latter movie has three parallell storylines, Sita Sings the Blues has only two traditional ones, with a third layer consisting of three shadow puppets commenting upon the events and characters in the Sita segments. This last layer is perhaps the weakest in terms of maintaining the tension of the plot, yet it is also very powerful in its own way.

One final thing which must be mentioned is the music, performed by the 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Combining these old songs with the ancient story and the modernistic animation is a stroke of genius. The banality of the words amplifies the depth of the double plot.

This film is best enjoyed together with someone you like.

Nina Paley in Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues
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Year: 2008
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Nina Paley
Stars: Annette Hanshaw, Reena Shah, Nina Paley
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1080)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (4.1 G)